Last night, President Obama unveiled his long-anticipated plan to use executive power to adjust immigration policy. Under his program, an estimated 3.7 million parents of US citizens and legal immigrants can apply for temporary relief from deportation and work authorization.
Details are still emerging, and the president and Congress will continue to debate the use of executive action to reform domestic policy. But one thing is clear: expanding the rights of immigrant parents is good for the well-being of children in this country.
How many kids are we talking about?
Most discussions of undocumented immigrants focus on the estimated 11 million people living in the US without legal permission to live or work here. But these undocumented immigrants very often live in families that also contain US citizens or legal immigrants, who are affected by their family members’ undocumented status.
Today, 5.3 million US children—over 80 percent of whom are US citizens—live with an undocumented immigrant parent.
What’s bad about having an undocumented parent?
Research has revealed warning signs that such children face particular threats to their well-being because of their parents’ status.
Undocumented parents are disproportionately likely to work long hours at jobs with low pay and to experience employment law violations, such as getting paid less than minimum wage or being denied overtime pay, leading to economic hardship.
Despite their higher need for economic support, children with undocumented parents have lower access to the public safety net. Parents often aren’t aware of their citizen children’s eligibility or are afraid that applying for benefits for their children might put them at risk of deportation. When families do apply, benefits are scaled down to the number of legal residents in the household.
Lack of access to driver’s licenses in most states further limits undocumented parents’ job prospects and their ability to support children’s education and activities.
At the most extreme, undocumented parents may get deported, meaning that children in those families face family fragmentation, school interruption, economic hardship, and emotional trauma. Last year, 72,000 parents of US citizen children were deported, according to government estimates.
In addition, the chronic stress, anxiety, and fear of living in the United States without authorization affects parents’ mental health, yet undocumented parents are less likely to seek mental health services.
How does all of this affect kids?
These disadvantages bear down on children’s healthy growth and development.
One study finds that young children with undocumented parents are slower to develop early learning skills than their peers, due in part to parents’ difficult work situations, economic hardship, higher stress, and lower access to center-based child care.
Young adults in Los Angeles who grew up with an undocumented immigrant parent attended fewer years of school than those whose parents obtained legal status.
And interviews with children of immigrants revealed high rates of anxiety about their parents getting deported.
So what happens now?
Obama’s new policy doesn’t give parents legal permanent resident status or a path to citizenship. We do not know how many parents will come forward for this status, nor the full set of rights and benefits that each state will provide to applicants. But advocates expect the plan will bring a sigh of relief to many immigrant parents who have been living under threat of deportation.
Urban Institute analysis suggests that obtaining work authorization will increase immigrant parents’ economic contributions and economic security. We expect that many will be able to access driver’s licenses for the first time, though that is up to states to decide. And parents with protection from deportation may be more willing to apply for public benefits for their US citizen children, when needed, even if immigrant parents remain ineligible themselves.
What’s good for parents is good for their children. When we eventually address broader issues in our immigration system, it’s worth keeping in mind that the fates of undocumented immigrants are intimately tied up with those of their family members.
Photo: An undocumented immigrant from Mexico plays with his son, a U.S. citizen living in Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)